Disasters: It's good to see the government taking steps to prevent a repeat of the post-Katrina aid fraud. But the reforms won't stick without an attitude change.
Let's start with the attitude of learned helplessness, which left much of New Orleans' welfare-dependent population unprepared to deal with the basic business of survival. Then there is the attitude of entitlement, which showed up in some early criticism of new rules for disaster aid at the Department of Homeland Security.
The department, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is cutting initial, unrestricted aid for future disasters to $500 from $2,000. Also, FEMA will grant emergency cash assistance only after checking computer records to make sure applicants aren't double-dipping, using false Social Security numbers or faking addresses. Families also would have to register with FEMA before moving into free hotel rooms.
These rules are designed to prevent the sort of fraud that marked the giveaway after Katrina. Government auditors say as much as $1.4 billion of the $5.4 million in cash aid handed out after that hurricane may have been misspent on items such as diamond rings and sex videos.
But where most might see reasonable requirements, others see too much rigidity.
"Certainly there are some people who may have lied about being from the disaster zone," Shanna L. Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, told The New York Times. "But to punish a large group of people for the behavior of a few seems quite harsh to me."
Mark C. Smith, a spokesman for Louisiana's emergency management agency, told the Times that the new limit on upfront cash aid was overly stingy: "Five hundred dollars is really not a lot of money, especially if it is for a family."
In one sense Smith is right. A family really can't live very long on $500. But this money isn't meant to cover a family's ongoing expenses. It is stopgap cash for the days immediately after a disaster.
The government has other aid, as well, such as free hotel rooms or low-cost trailers, for longer-term needs. That assistance can be abused, too. It took far too long for FEMA to ease people out of hotels, and thousands of people are still living in FEMA trailer parks.
If there's one moral to the disaster-aid story, it's that you can't stress the message of self-reliance too much. To do so, unfortunately, the government has to get used to saying "no" more often and demanding some evidence of eligibility and need from those who claim to deserve aid. It's making a good start in that direction with its new aid procedures.
But it shouldn't expect understanding from all quarters. Come the next disaster, a flintier FEMA is almost sure to take hits in the media for allegedly prolonging some victims' hardship. Its reforms can survive only if the public sees through the critics' false compassion and puts the proper value on personal responsibility.